Saddling Up With Serling: A Pre-TZ Wild West Detour
Got a sibling? If so, did he or she ever make trouble for you? Did you ever get into arguments? Maybe even engage in some physical fights?
It’s almost silly to ask. If you have a sibling, the answer to my other questions is a resounding yes. Even if you get along now, you probably didn’t at one time, at least not when you were growing up.
Well, no matter how bad things were, I can practically guarantee that you had it better than Steve and Tony Sinclair. They’re the oil-and-water duo at the heart of “Saddle the Wind”, a 1958 feature film written by Rod Serling.
This western is about as far away from the fifth dimension as you can imagine. Instead of stark black-and-white images on a TV set, we get the panoramic open plains and mountains of the Wild West, shot in sharp, wide-screen Technicolor.
There isn’t an alien or time-travel machine in sight. This tale is set strictly in the real world (or as real as anything we ever get out of Hollywood). No specific year is given, but it clearly occurs shortly after the Civil War. Indeed, one’s former allegiance to either the North or the South comes heavily into play more than once.
The story, in brief, concerns what happens when Tony, the impetuous, hot-headed younger brother played by John Cassavetes, comes west to join his older, responsible and more mature brother, Steve, played by Robert Taylor. Tony even brings a young lady that he wants to marry, a former saloon singer named Joan (Julie London, who sings the title track at one point).
Steve works as a rancher on some land that he rents from a man named Deneen (Donald Crisp) who owns most of their picturesque valley. The elder Sinclair is trying to live down a reputation as a gunfighter, and judging from his solid and dependable ways, doing a very good job of it — that is, until Tony shows up, ready to laugh, drink, and shoot, and starts ruffling some local feathers.
It isn’t long before Tony is complicating Steve’s life in ways big and small. He kills another gunfighter who was planning to confront Steve. All well and good, but soon his newfound celebrity has gone to his head. Then a Yankee farmer shows up to fence off some land he inherited (anathema to cattlemen like Steve), and an even more serious confrontation looms.
I won’t spoil the rest for you, because although “Saddle the Wind” is no classic, it’s still a solid, engrossing film (one that clocks in at a surprisingly brisk 84 minutes). Yes, the story trades on many of the usual western tropes, and Taylor has all the charisma of a store mannequin, but Cassavetes and the others deliver compelling performances, and director Robert Parrish gives it a polished look.
And Serling, of course, provides the words. The New York Times, which called the film “interesting rather than walloping”, found his dialogue “excellent, blunt, thoughtful and scathing, in turn. The picture is worth seeing simply to hear what these people will say next.”
At one point, for example, Deneen is talking about the Sinclair brothers with his foreman, Brick:
Deneen: “I know all about the brother and the sickness inside him. He didn’t get that from Steve. He was born with it.”
Brick: “I don’t think that Tony ever did get born. I think that somebody just found him wedged into a gun cylinder and shot him out into the world by pressing the trigger.”
But my favorite lines come when Tony and Steve are arguing at one point:
Tony: “You better open your eyes because I’m not just your kid brother anymore. I’m a full partner, and I ride abreast of you. And you’re not sitting on me anymore.”
Steve: “I never sat on you. I never tied you down. I only wanted one thing in my life, and that was to see you rise up. You only got up as high as your gun belt. And that’s a low height for a man.”
Beyond memorable dialogue, however, the film gives us something else: a look at how people respond when given difficult choices.
Many films and TV shows make it look pretty simple. They paint in high-tone blacks and whites, creating a world where moral choices look incredibly obvious. But in real life, men and women face dilemmas. What happens, for example, when following your conscience pits you against your own flesh and blood? What do you do then?
Serling, here and throughout his career, doesn’t let his characters or his audience off the hook. We weigh the pros and cons too, and even when the right decision is made, there can still be a tragic aspect to it that must be dealt with.
Perhaps that’s one reason why this movie and Serling’s later TV series “The Loner” did respectable business, but weren’t big hits. We say we want realism in our entertainment, but do we? About as much as we want to eat healthy and exercise daily, I would imagine.
“I gave better dialogue to the horses than to the actors,” Serling later quipped. Not even close. “Saddle the Wind” may not make anyone’s list of top westerns, but for those who enjoy the genre — and certainly for fans of Serling – it’s well worth the ride.
This post is part of “The Great Western Blogathon” over at ThoughtsAllSorts. For more posts on great westerns, check it out!
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!